REGISTRIES REVISITED
Derek “The Fallen One” Logue
February 9, 2009, ADDENDUM 8/30/09

Introduction

Since its inception, the public registry for sex offenders [a.k.a., “Megan’s Law] has become a mainstay in our
society. Proponents of this law claim many benefits, such as the availability of sex offender information to make
informed decisions, promoting public safety, and lowering recidivism by increased vigilance. In 2003 even the US
Supreme Court claimed registries were constitutional. However, in light of new evidence of both the overall
ineffectiveness and the negative consequences of the registries, including propagating myths, social ostracism,
barriers to rehabilitation, and even vigilantism, the notion of public registries should be revisited, including in court.
(For the sake of brevity, since community notification is always coupled with the public registry, all references to the
registry should be assumed to apply to community notification as well).

A Very Concise History of Megan’s Law

If I had known that there was a pedophile living on our street, my daughter would be alive today.” – Maureen Kanka

The concept of a public registry was founded on the “If Only” principle – The rationale is “If only we had known a sex
offender was living down the street, this tragedy would not have happened." In 1994, ninety-four days after the
murder of 7 year old Megan Kanka, New Jersey passed the first public registry law (the Jacob Wetterling Act, the
federal registry, was not public). Two years later, in 1996, President Clinton signed the National public registry into
law, which also included community notification [1].  At first, there was a lot of resistance to these laws on the basis
of constitutional rights, but today those sentiments have changed greatly; today people claim it is not enough and
demand more restrictive laws [2].  Some lower courts had ruled the public registries indeed violate constitutional
rights [3] ; however, the US Supreme Court upheld the public registry in Smith v. Doe in a 6-3 decision, claiming the
registry was regulatory and not punitive, and thus does not violate ex post facto. The three dissenters rightfully
noted the registry is indeed punitive [4].  In the same year, the US Supreme Court also ruled that registries do not
violate procedural due process, but did not rule on substantive due process [5].  

The 2003 rulings of the US Supreme Court have justified increased restrictions of every kind, and the High Court
has only made one ruling since then against any measure aimed at sex offenders, the 2008 Kennedy v. Louisiana
decision, which banned the death penalty for child rape where no murder was involved [6].  The Kennedy decision
was heavily criticized by both Barack Obama and John McCain, who were both running for President at the time [7],
and a failed move to overturn the law was pushed by 85 House Republicans and the governors of Missouri and
Louisiana [8].

Impact and Consequences of Megan’s Law

Proponents of Megan’s Law have long argued the law as an effective tool to protect themselves from convicted sex
offenders. However, research has discovered a myriad of problems with the law itself which counter any claims of
effectiveness of the law. Below are some of the major problems with registry laws.

Perpetuating Stereotypes:
It comes as little surprise registry laws have helped perpetuate many of the myths the general public believes about
those who commit sexual offenses, including stranger-danger, high recidivism rates of sex offenders, the view
everyone on the registry are of equally high risk, and believe treatment is ineffective for reducing recidivism, which
of course, fuels the public perceptions registries are needed [9]. Despite our best efforts to counter the myths [10],
a visit to any blog, forum, or chatroom where sex offender laws are being discussed will provide evidence that the
majority of individuals still hold fast to these beliefs.

Predator/ Moral Panic:
Predator Panic the result of disproportionate media sensationalism and political crusading over the very rare
occurrence of brutal sex crimes in this country [11]. Studies have shown that the media over-reported sex crimes up
to 14 times the level of actual incidence, and present their reports in ways that inspire more fear of sex crimes than
any other crime including homicide [12]. Predator panic has become so widespread it has even impacted the view
that all men, not just those on the registries, are potential predators. Fear of accusations is so deep, businesses
such as airlines and coaches at school have instituted policies to never allow men alone with a child [13]. As a
consequence, fewer men are working or volunteering at child-oriented businesses or even to stop to help a
distressed child at the mall, because, as one man put it, “Being male, I am guilty till proven innocent [14].” Predator
panic can even result in loss of property values of homes around the residence of a registrant by an average of
four percent [15].  Thus, evidence Megan’s Law and Predator Panic continually feed off each other has become
more evident over the years.

Promotes Vigilantism:
As of Sept. 2007, eAdvocate lists 112 murdered individuals known to have been murdered due to sex crime
accusations or convictions [16].  The most notorious acts against registrants were the double murders in
Washington in September 2005 and the double murders in Maine in April 2006; both murders were linked directly to
their listings on the online registry [17].  In addition to murder, a significant number of registrants, as well as loved
ones of the registrant, have experienced different forms of vigilantism. “Nearly half of the offenders reported
experiencing threats, property damage, or physical assault as a result of public disclosure [18].”  In addition, almost
half of people living with the registrant reported being threatened or harassed by neighbors, 27% had their property
damaged, and 7% said they were physically assaulted by someone as a result of notification [19].  Furthermore,
strong evidence has shown that the information typically contained on the registries compel readers to behave in a
“less than responsible” manner [20].

May Deter Reporting of Sex Crimes:
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, only 6.7% of the victims under age 18 and 34.4% of the victims over
18 were attacked by strangers [21], so the shaming effect of the registry is believed to deter some victims who know
his or her offender from reporting the crime [22].  Registries may lead to the identification of the victim, and may not
report the crime because of the impact on the family [23].

Creates Barriers to Rehabilitation and Reintegration:
“Although these laws were passed as a means to decrease recidivism and promote public safety, the resulting
stigmatization of sex offenders is likely to result in disruption of their relationships, loss of or difficulties finding jobs,
difficulties finding housing, and decreased psychological well-being, all factors that could increase their risk of
recidivism [24].”  Researchers generally agree that stability in post-release life of the former offender greatly
impacts recidivism, and by creating such a malevolent environment towards those on the registry, registries
interfere with successful reintegration and rehabilitation. Indeed, registrants have report stress, isolation, disruption
to social relationships, fear for one’s safety, shame and embarrassment, and hopelessness. Furthermore, as the
result of these barriers, registrants are far more likely to live in poorer neighborhoods with higher crime rates,
placing even more barriers to the rehabilitation process [25].  At the core of this argument is the impact of the
“labeling effect,” more specifically, “disintegrative shaming,” the criminological theory in which a former offender is
prevented from reintegrating and reconnecting to society and may in response commit subsequent offenses [26].   
The detrimental impact can be greater among those socially stigmatized as sexual deviants at an earlier age, as
youth tend to be more impressionable and reactive to the negative effects of these laws [27]. The Adam Walsh Act
allows youth as young as age 14 to be listed on the public registries.

Effectiveness of Megan’s Law Questioned

Until recently, there has been little in the way of research on the impact of sex offender registries on the prevention
of sex crimes. Some early studies failed to find any significant declines in re-arrest rates for both sex specific and in
crimes in general among registrants[28].  A 2006 study on the registries found that the laws were created more on
“assumptions” than on factual information. The study found no evidence Megan’s Law reduces recidivism, use
registries to find other offenders to be partners in crime, gives a false sense of security, promotes myths about the
nature of sex crimes, and possibly deter intra-familial offenses from being reported. Furthermore, vigilantism against
registrants was highly under-reported and under-recorded [29].  

Two studies released at the beginning of 2009 reinforce the earlier findings of the impact of Megan’s Law.

New Jersey Study—“Megan’s Law: Assessing the Practical and Monetary Efficacy [30] ”
The first study making considerable headlines is the New Jersey study released to the public around the first of
February, 2009. This study failed to link Megan’s Law with reducing sex crime rates, as crime trends were already
on the decline when Megan’s Law took effect, and the decline could possibly be attributed to other cultural trends.
The study also failed to find any impact on reducing sex crimes among convicted offenders or even first time
offenders, nor in reducing the number of victims involved in sexual offenses. Costs associated with the initial
implementation as well as ongoing expenditures continue to grow over time. Start up costs totaled $555,565 and
current costs (in 2007) totaled approximately 3.9 million dollars for the responding counties. Given the lack of
demonstrated effect of Megan’s Law on sexual offenses, the growing costs may not be justifiable.

It is interesting to note that Maureen Kanka was reported by reliable sources to have tried to have the research
article suppressed [31],  so it came as no surprise when she criticized the study and made the claim Megan’s Law is
not intended to change the behavior of sex criminals [32].

New York Study—“Does a Watched Pot Boil? A Time-Series Analysis of New York State’s Sex Offender Registration
and Notification Law
[33]
Perhaps a more damning study was recently published by the American Psychological Association in November
2008. In the introduction to the study, the researchers noted the media sensationalizes sex crime stories in more
fearful ways than any other crime types, and the myths that perpetuate the support of such laws. It also noted a
2005 study that found out of 10 states, six reported no change in sex crime rates, three reported decreases, and
one reported a sharp increase [34].  

The New York Study found no changes in the sex crime rates of either convicted sex offenders or first time
offenders before or after registry laws were passed in New York. Furthermore the study found 95.9% of rape arrests
and 94.1% of child molestation arrests were of first time offenders, meaning people not on the registry [35].  The
study concludes more resources should be used on prevention programs and not to rely on this ineffective measure
which may discourage reporting abuse among those the victim knows, as well as giving people a false sense of
security.

Registries “Not Intended to Reduce Recidivism,” Intent is “Increase Awareness:"
In response to the New Jersey study debunking the deterrent effects of Megan’s Law, Maureen Kanka claimed the
intent was not to “alter the behavior of sex offenders,” but to “provide an awareness to the public [36].” Many
articles cast doubt on the efficacy of that argument as well. In a 2005 Gallup Poll taken just after the Jessica
Lunsford tragedy hit the media, only 38% of individuals were even aware their state even maintains a registry. Even
though 94% of those polled favored registries, only 23% have ever checked the registry, while 34% stated concerns
over harassment and vigilantism as a result of the registry [37]. When the state of Florida proposed cutting e-mail
notification alerts in 2008 due to budget cuts, it was noted only 44,000 of the state’s 16 million residents (or
0.275%) signed up for the program [38], or roughly one signee per registrant. If statistically 40% of the 49,000
Florida registrants experienced harassment or vigilantism, then it can be safely assumed a correlation between the
email alert program and vigilantism exists.

Revisiting Smith v. Doe

The gist of Smith v. Doe was the weighing of public safety over individual rights coupled with the declaration that sex
offenders have high recidivism rates, thus posing an imminent threat to society as a whole: “The risk or recidivism
posed by sex offenders is ‘frightening and high [39]’.”  However, in making this assumption, the US Supreme Court
erred by relying on a myth to justify upholding this law [40].  In addition, in light of research on the negative
consequences of the laws after the Smith v. Doe case, the argument the laws are not punitive cannot hold up to the
assertion that the severe negative consequences of the laws indeed make them punitive by nature. Also, the lack of
effectiveness of the laws counters any appeal to legitimate governmental interest of the registries [41].  

There have been a number of lower court rulings since the Smith v. Doe case to warrant a review of the landmark
ruling. Lower court rulings have determined that the negative effects of these laws are “grave” and pose significant
barriers to reintegration and rehabilitation, and puts registrants at high risk for vigilantism [42].  Though legislatures
claim the intent of the law is not to punish the offender, courts have determined the effects of the laws deemed the
laws to be punitive [43],  and determined the registration of certain offenders violated ex post facto [44].  In addition,
provisions of the registry under the Adam Walsh Act relating to offenders moving to other states have been
declared unconstitutional and an encroachment of federal control over the states [45].  In regards to juvenile
offenders, a court has ruled against harsh provisions treating juvenile offenders of certain crimes register as adult
sex offenders violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment [46].

Summary

Sex offender registries are very popular with the public, at least at first glance. However, there have been a number
of unintentional and negative consequences of the law, including perpetuating sex offender stereotypes and myths,
promoting moral or “predator panic,” promoting vigilantism, deters reporting of certain sex crimes, and creates
barriers to successful reintegration and rehabilitation. To date, no study has found evidence Megan’s Law acts as a
deterrent, and may even be counterproductive to reducing criminal sexual behavior. With that revelation,
proponents of the law have shifted from emphasizing the deterrent effect to the information benefit. However, stats
show even that argument is difficult to justify. Furthermore, the low number of individuals regularly visiting registries
coupled with a high incidence of vigilantism against registrants and their loved ones suggest a very strong
correlation between registry use and vigilante violence and harassment. Finally, the US Supreme Court had erred in
the Smith v. Doe decision, largely as a result of myth reliance and lack of proof to the punitive nature of the laws.
However, after years of the existence of these laws, the negative and punitive consequences have become evident
through research and the courts, and a stronger case for reversing the old Smith v. Doe decision can be made.

References

  1. Paul Mickel, “1997: Justice For Megan.” The Trentonian, http://capitalcentury.com/1997.html, Retrieved Feb.
    9, 2008
  2. Patty Wetterling, “Patty Wetterling: The Harm in Sex Offender Laws.” The Sacramento Bee, Sept. 14, 2007,
    http://www.sacbee.com/110/v-print/story/377462.html, Retrieved April 12, 2008
  3. State of Hawaii v. Eto Bani, Case No. 22196 [Sup. Ct. Hawaii Nov. 21, 2001], see http://pub.bna.com/cl/22196.
    htm; Doe v. Otte, 259 F. 3d 979 [9th Cir. 2001]
  4. Smith v. Doe, 538 US 84 [2003]
  5. Connecticut Dept. of Public Safety v. Doe, 538 US 1 [2003]
  6. Kennedy v. Louisiana, 554 US ___ [2008], http://www.supremecourtus.gov/opinions/07pdf/07-343.pdf
  7. “Kennedy v. Louisiana.” The New York Sun, June 26, 2008. http://www.nysun.com/editorials/kennedy-v-
    louisiana/80750/, Retrieved Feb. 10, 2009
  8. David Stout, “Justices asked to Reconsider.” New York Times, http://www.nytimes.
    com/2008/07/11/washington/11brfs-JUSTICESAREA_BRF.html?_r=1, Retrieved Feb. 10, 2009
  9. Jill S. Levenson, Yolanda N. Brannon, Timothy Fortney, and Juanita Baker, “Public Perceptions About Sex
    Offenders and Community Protection Policies.” Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, Vol. 7, No. 1, 2007
  10. Derek Logue, “Sex Offender Myths: The Foundation of Sex Offender Laws.” Once Fallen, Oct. 15, 2008, http:
    //www.oncefallen.com/SOMyths.html
  11. Kristen M. Zgoba, “Spin Doctors and Moral Crusaders: The Moral Panic behind Child Safety Legislation.”
    Criminal Justice Studies, Vol. 17, No. 4, Dec. 2004
  12. Jeffrey C. Sandler, Naomi J. Freeman, and Kelly M. Socia, “Does a Watched Pot Boil? A Time-Series Analysis
    of New York State’s Sex Offender Registration and Notification Law.” Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, Vol.
    14, No. 4, Nov. 2008. Pp. 284-285.
  13. Jeff Zaslow, “Are We Teaching Kids to Fear Men?” Wall Street Journal, Aug. 23, 2007. http://online.wsj.
    com/article/SB118782905698506010.html
  14. Anne Hart, “Men: guilty till proven innocent.” Savannah Now, Sept. 15, 2007, http://savannahnow.
    com//node/360206, Retrieved Feb. 19, 2008
  15. Leigh L. Linden and Jonah E. Rockoff, “There Goes The Neighborhood? Estimates of the Impact of Crime
    Risk on Property Values fro Megan’s Laws.” NBER Working Paper No. 12253, May 2006 Revised April 2007,
    http://www.nber.org/papers/w12553
  16. eAdvocate, “Murdered in the Unit,ed States: Registered Sex Offenders & Others.” Sex Offender Issues, News,
    Recidivism and Studies by a Voice of Reason, Oct. 27, 2009. http://sexoffenderresearch.blogspot.
    com/2007/10/murdered-in-united-states-registered.html, Retrieved Feb. 8, 2009
  17. Gitika Ahuja, “Sex Offender Registries: Putting Lives at Risk?” ABC News, April 18, 2006, http://abcnews.go.
    com/US/story?id=1855771&page=1. Retrieved Feb. 8, 2009; “2 On Sex Registry Murdered in Maine.”
    NewsNet5.com, April 17, 2006, http://www.newsnet5.com/news/8776457/detail.html, retrieved Feb. 8, 2009
  18. Brannon, Levenson, Fortney, and Baker, “Attitudes About Community Notification.” Sex Abuse, Oct. 9, 2007
  19. Levenson and Tewksbury (2009), “Collateral Damage: Family Members of Registered Sex Offenders.”
    American Journal of Criminal Justice.
  20. Jessica Evans, “Vigilance and Vigilantes: Thinking psychoanalytically about anti-paedophile action.”
    Theoretical Criminology, May 2005
  21. Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Inmates in State Correctional Facilities,” 1997
  22. “Banishment is not the answer.” Human Rights Watch, Jan. 31, 2005, http://www.hrw.
    org/en/news/2005/01/30/banishment-not-answer, Retrieved Feb. 9, 2009
  23. Edwards, W., and Hensley, C. “Contextualizing sex offender management legislation and policy: Evaluating
    the problem of latent consequences in community notification laws.” International Journal of Offender Therapy
    and Comparative Criminology, Vol. 45, 2001
  24. Hollida Wakefield, “The Vilification of Sex Offenders” Institute for Psychological Therapies, 2007
  25. Jill S. Levenson, David A. D’Amora, and Andrea L. Hern, “Megan’s Law and its Impact on Community Re-entry
    for Sex Offenders.” Behavioral Sciences and the Law, July 2007. Pp. 597
  26. Monica L.P. Rogers, “Lifers on the Outside: Sex Offenders and ‘Disintegrative Shaming’.” International
    Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, Vol. 53, No. 1, Jan. 2009
  27. “The negative impact of registries on youth: Why are youth different from adults?” Justice Policy Institute,
    Aug. 2008.  http://njjn.org/media/resources/public/resource_842.pdf, Retrieved Feb. 10, 2008
  28. Donna D. Schram, Ph.D. & Cheryl Darling Milloy, Ph.C. “Community Notification: A Study of Offender
    Characteristics and Recidivism.” Urban Policy Institute, Oct. 1995; “The Iowa Sex Offender Registry and
    Recidivism.” Iowa Department of Human Rights: Division of Criminal and Juvenile Justice Planning and
    Statistical Analysis Center, Dec. 2000
  29. Kate Fitch, “Megan’s Law: Does it protect children?” NSPCC, 2006
  30. Kristen Zgoba, Ph.D.; Philip Witt, Ph.D.; Melissa Dalessandro, M.S.W.; Bonita Veysey, Ph.D.  Megan’s Law:
    Assessing the Practical and Monetary Efficacy.  US Dept. of Justice Report [awaiting publishing], Jan. 2009
  31. As noted on an announcement at www.operationawareness.com, Retrieved Feb. 10, 2009
  32. Adrienne Lu, “Megan’s law ineffective, study says.” The Philadelphia Enquirer, Feb. 7, 2009, http://www.philly.
    com/inquirer/local/20090207_Megan_s_Law_ineffective__study_says.html, Retrieved Feb. 9, 2009
  33. Jeffrey C. Sandler, Naomi J. Freeman, and Kelly M. Socia, “Does a Watched Pot Boil? A Time-Series Analysis
    of New York State’s Sex Offender Registration and Notification Law.” Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, Vol.
    14, No. 4, Nov. 2008
  34. Ibid., pp. 287, quoting Walker, J. T., Maddan, S., Vasquez, B. E., VanHouten, A. C., and Ervin-McCarthy, G.
    (2005). “The influence of sex offender registration and notification laws in the United States.”
  35. Sandler, Freeman, and Socia, “Does a Watched Pot Boil?” Pp. 297
  36. Adrienne Lu, “Megan’s Law Ineffective”
  37. Lydia Saad, “Sex Offender Registries are Underutilized by the Public.” Gallup, June 9, 2005, http://www.gallup.
    com/poll/16705/Sex-Offender-Registries-Underutilized-Public.aspx, Retrieved Feb. 9, 2009
  38. Whitney Ray, “Amber Alerts and Sexual Offender Registry May Be Cut by FDLE.” WJHG 7, Nov. 13, 2008,
    http://www.wjhg.com/news/headlines/34417494.html, Retrieved Feb. 10, 2009
  39. Smith v. Doe, 538 US at 103
  40. See Logue “Sex Offender Myths,” Myth #3
  41. Derek Logue, “How Sex Offender Laws Circumvent the Constitution: Civil/ Regulatory versus Criminal/
    Punitive.” Once Fallen, Nov.  26, 2007, http://www.oncefallen.com/CivilVCriminal.html
  42. Doe v. State, 92 P.3d 398, 410 (Alaska 2004); Doe v. Otte, 259 F.3d 979, 988 (9th Cir. 2001), rev’d., Smith v.
    Doe, 538 U.S. 84 (2003)
  43. Doe v. Alaska, Case No. S-12150 [Sup. Ct. AK, July 2008], see Logue, “Civil v. Criminal,” Argument #1
  44. Doe v. Alaska; Jensen v. Indiana, Case No. 02A04-0706-CR-351 [App. Ct. IN, Dec. 26, 2007]
  45. David L. Hudson, Jr. “Crime Registries Under Fire.” ABA Journal, Sept. 2008
  46. In re. Z. B., 2008 SD 108 [Sup. Ct. SD, 2008]

ADDENDUM 8/30/09: New Study questions motivations for people to check the registries!

http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p_mla_apa_research_citation/2/2/9/3/6/p229363_index.html

Sex Offender Registries: Curiosity, not Caution, as a Motivation for Viewing

Abstract:

Sex-offender registries allow citizens to identify and monitor sex-offenders living in their communities yet little
research exists regarding their usefulness. This research sought to identify participants’ attitudes toward sex-
offenders and motives for accessing registries. Attitudes were assessed using Altemeyer's Right Wing
Authoritarianism scale and an original scale developed to assess attitudes regarding sex-offenders and the registry.
Twenty-nine percent of participants reported having viewed a registry and mostly did so out of curiosity rather than
out of fear or concern for safety. Authoritarians were found to be more favorable toward sex-offender registries and
had a greater belief in their effectiveness.

APA Citation:

Jones, C. A. and Harrington, E.  , 2008-03-05  "Sex Offender Registries: Curiosity, not Caution, as a Motivation for
Viewing" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychology - Law Society, Hyatt Regency
Jacksonville Riverfront, Jacksonville, FL <Not Available>.  2009-05-23 from http://www.allacademic.
com/meta/p229363_index.html
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